Seat shortage may undercut school plan

Debate over fundamental and magnet schools may bring a delay.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007

Pinellas School Board members are days away from officially ending the choice plan and replacing it with a system that would give all students a chance to attend a school close to home.

But don't hold them to a date.

Board members and district administrators continue to wrestle with a solution for the area south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, where it is feared there could be a shortage of several hundred seats if all the students who live in that region elected to attend their neighborhood schools next year.

Since most families have expressed a desire to stay in their current choice schools, a sudden shortage seems unlikely. Still, district officials say they need to prepare for the possibility.

The resulting debate could delay the plan's approval.

The problem: Under the plan, 11 of 13 elementary schools south of Central would be fundamentals or magnets, all of which would draw students from across the county or a large area of the county during a special application period. The system reduces the chances of a child down the street getting into one of those schools.

It's a problem of competing desires that has tied the School Board in knots for months.

Magnet and fundamental schools typically draw a racially diverse mix of kids, which furthers the plan's diversity goals. But the way students are admitted to those schools keeps many neighborhood kids out, which works against another goal of the plan - to give everyone a chance at a "close to home" school.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox has asked board members to stick with the plan as written, approve it at their regular meeting Dec. 11 and let his staff work out the south-of-Central problem in coming weeks. The district needs to move on to other pressing issues, he said.

Now's the time

Some board members agree, provided they don't make fundamental changes to the plan at a workshop just hours before the final vote.

"The more questions we have the more questions arise and this could go on forever," said board member Peggy O'Shea. "We have to do something here. ... It's time."

Said board member Carol Cook: "Unless we're ready to scrap the plan, I think we're at the point where we need to vote."

But some board members are pressing for a full discussion of the potential seat shortage at the Dec. 11 workshop. They also say the board should delay the final vote and schedule a special meeting Dec. 18 so any changes can be properly presented to the public.

Wilcox says he'll do whatever a board majority wants, but cautioned that "any delay, even a small one now, will compromise our ability to make this plan work in the next school year."

After the approval, Wilcox and his staff must tend to numerous details by early February, when the application process for magnets and fundamentals would begin. Among Wilcox's potential solutions for handling a shortage of seats: delay for a year the closing of Clearview Elementary on 43rd Street North; add portables at selected schools; add kindergarten classes at Bay Vista Fundamental and Fairmount Park elementaries; and/or increase enrollments at magnet schools such as Perkins and Melrose elementaries.

Proximity problem

In a memo sent to board members Sunday, Wilcox cautions against a suggestion by some board members that the district set aside a certain percentage of seats at every magnet and fundamental school for neighborhood students - a device called a "proximity preference." That would "lead to less integrated settings" in those schools, he said.

He echoed scores of fundamental parents who sent e-mails last week voicing concern over a proximity preference for their children's schools.

The plan calls for proximity preferences at only two magnet schools, James Sanderlin and Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. elementaries. Both would set aside 35 percent of the seats in every entering kindergarten class for neighborhood students.

"Why those two (schools)?" asked board member Janet Clark. "It makes no sense."

Clark said all magnet and fundamental schools, north and south county, should have a proximity preference for neighborhood students. To do less, she said, would create a "two-tier system" that leaves some students disenfranchised. As written, the plan works against one of its guiding principles, which is "a uniform set of rules for the entire county," Clark argued.

She added: "If I had to vote this very minute, I would not vote for the plan."

Board member Linda Lerner voiced similar concerns.

"What about the African American kids in South County?" she asked. "What is their close-to-home school going to be? I don't want kids being bused very long distances to their close-to-home school."

The plan calls for the district to undertake "an aggressive marketing plan" aimed at poor and minority families. The goal: to get them to consider applying for magnet and fundamental schools in their neighborhoods.

In the past, many families in those predominantly black neighborhoods have not participated in the magnet and fundamental application process.

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.